Last night, I noshed from the free dinner buffet at the Residence Inn, my home away from home. While most hotel guests watched baseball in one corner of the lobby, I had the whole dining area to myself; so I spread out in front of the large flat screen TV. They must have known I was coming because it was set on my favorite reality channel, C-SPAN.
The federal debt proceedings were winding down, just as a Senate Banking subcommittee hearing on mortgage foreclosures was airing from earlier in the day. Ah, my old milieu.
I was a financial services lobbyist for many years, spending countless hours in the House and Senate Banking Committee rooms, attending hearings and staffing witnesses.
On C-SPAN you can always tell who’s staffing the witness. It’s typically the person in the camera shot trying not to flinch as his or her boss delivers testimony to committee members from the witness table.
I find it enormously entertaining to watch these staff people, who aren’t always used to being on camera. Because I’ve been there.
Facial movements can be a powerful study in nonverbal communication, often to the point of distraction. Unlike Congressional staff—those people who work for members of Congress—who are accustomed to being on camera, witness staff often must sit excruciatingly still for the slow-going three-to-five minutes their witness is testifying, then again during the Q&A. Even moving one’s eyeballs in a tight shot can appear exaggerated to millions of viewers.
If you have trouble maintaining a poker face as I do–as I used to–controlling a cringe is one of the hardest things you can do, especially once the prepared statement has been read and questions must be answered. Eye-rolling was not tolerated in our house when I was growing up; this is the rule has served me best in my professional life.
If you ever find yourself in the position as the person-behind-the-person, take some tips from me:
- Pretend you’re one of those human statues seen on the streets of European cities. Keep your eyes glued to your witness, not the camera lens or extreme corners of the room.
- If you don’t think you can do this for three to five minutes, pretend to take notes, though be aware, if you happen to be follically sparse, looking down too far could bounce a bright beam back at the camera.
- When your witness strays shockingly from the talking points or pre-rehearsed answer, fight the wince and keep your eyes open. Lock your jaw, lest it drop abruptly and harm your cause.
- Finally, if you have friends in the room, don’t make eye contact. Trust me.
The next time you catch a hearing on C-SPAN, see how many Dos and Don’ts you can add. Or maybe you’ve been there and have your own list?